Monday, October 28, 2019

Remembering Robert Evans: The Kid Stayed in the Picture

As a tribute to Robert Evans, who passed away Saturday at age 89, I offer this 2002 interview, which I wrote prior to the theatrical of The Kid Stays in the Picture, the documentary film adapted from his best-selling autobiography.

“OK,” says I, lapsing into my best approximation of a Hollywood hard-sell tone, “there are these teen-agers at this posh British boarding school, and they're feeling rebellious in regard to their oppressive teachers and their bullying classmates, and so they fantasize about getting these automatic weapons and blowing people away on graduation day, only maybe they're not fantasizing because we've blurred the line between fantasy and reality, you know what I mean?”

Robert Evans smiles, his eyes fairly twinkling behind his trademark tinted, oversized glasses as he relaxes in his condo at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. He knows exactly what I mean, because the movie I'm pretending to pitch, If…, was one of many outstanding films released by Paramount Pictures during his storied tenure as head of production in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

In its time, this particular movie — a remarkably lyrical yet darkly troubling fantasia by the late, great Lindsay Anderson — was hailed as a visionary masterwork, and earned top honors at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. Better still, from Evans’ point of few, it earned a tidy sum for Paramount.

But what would happen if I would pitch If… today?

“You'd be stopped before you’d finish the sentence,” Evans says in his raspy, rumbling baritone. “And the meeting would be over. Immediately.

“And you never get another meeting. At Paramount or anywhere else.”
Which should tell you all you need to know about the difference between the take-no-chances timidity of today’s corporate-micromanaged moviemaking by committee, and the go-for-broke venturesomeness that fueled the filmmaking machinery  — and even infused Hollywood studio decision-makers — during Evans’ heyday three decades ago.

“But If… isn't the only one,” Evans says. “How about Harold and Maude, eh? An 18-year-old boy falls in love with an 80-year-old woman. I actually had to keep that a secret from (Charles Bludhorn, head of Gulf + Western, then owner of Paramount). I just told him it was a love story.

“And then there was Medium Cool,” Haskell Wexler’s audacious semi-documentary drama about political protests and anti-war activism at the 1968 Democratic convention. Evans may have been a close buddy of Presidential advisor Henry Kissinger, but he didn’t let friendship — or the angry response of board members at Gulf + Western — get in the way of his dropping the hot-potato picture into theaters and drive-ins everywhere.

“I even tried to bring Henry Miller to the screen, in 1970. You ever see Tropic of Cancer, with Rip Torn? You did? Well, then you're the only one at this festival who ever had, I’ll bet. It was a half-assed film, I admit. But it was exciting to try it.”

Evans described many highlights of '70s moviemaking in general, and his Paramount output in particular, in The Kid Stays in the Picture, his best-selling 1994 autobiography that has been turned into a uniquely candid and captivating documentary film

Of course, Evans also wrote about the many women he has wooed, wed or otherwise encountered, and catalogued several misadventures involving chemically-enhanced activity, and that helped to broaden the appeal of his book beyond movie buffs and film historians. (The audio version of the book, read by Evans himself, became a cult item and popular Christmas gift among Hollywood insiders and up-and-comers.) 

But his first-hand accounts of green-lighting productions during his Paramount regime —Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, The Conversation, Serpico, Harold and Maude and the first two Godfather epics, among others — are what really make the book required reading for anyone who's serious about cinema as art and entertainment. More important, those stories, and those experiences, are what continue to make the 72-year-old Evans such an influential figure and sought-after adviser in the eyes of much-younger moviemakers in the New Hollywood of the 21st century.

“You go over to Bob's house in Beverly Hills any evening,” says Nannette Burstein, co-director of Kid Stays in the Picture, “and you're likely to find people like Wes Anderson or David O. Russell there, asking questions or just hanging out. Because he made a lot of the movies that we watched while we were growing up, that made us want to become filmmakers.”

Co-director Brett Morgan is even more hyperbolic: “Bob Evans is one of the most fascinating men who ever lived in the 20th century. Without a question. And the more time I’ve spent with him, the more confidant I am to make that statement.”

Robert Evans came to Paramount in 1966 best known as a semi-successful businessman — “I was into women's pants,” he says, jokingly referring to his family’s fashion business — and failed actor. (The title of the book and movie come from producer Darryl Zanuck’s angry response when Evans’ director and co-stars tried to get him booted from a key role in the 1957 film version of The Sun Also Rises.) At the time, little was expected of him because Paramount, then a minor, money-hemorrhaging property of Gulf + Western, was dead last among Hollywood studios. He was dealt a free hand. And with extraordinary frequency, he came up aces.

“Bob was there,” says Morgan, “during a period between the studio system and the corporate conglomerates. It was like the Wild West.”

“It wasn't a multi-billion-dollar business at that time,” says Burstein. “When Robert came into Paramount, is was like, ‘OK, this company is about to go into the graveyard — let’s make some movies, and try not to lose too much on our stock value.’  The thing is, Robert turned it around, and they ended becoming fiscally sound. And a result — and this happened at a lot of other studios as well — the movie business became very important, very profitable. So it became very corporately run.”

Evans eventually stepped down as Paramount chief to work as an independent producer. But he fell out of favor in Hollywood during the 1980s after his arrest for cocaine possession — with typical shrewdness, he avoided jail time by producing a prime-time TV anti-drug extravaganza — and his innocent-bystander involvement with a highly-publicized murder. (He has nothing to with the killing of Roy Radin, a potential investor in The Cotton Club, but he was linked to the crime by newspapers, and endured guilt-by-association consequences.) He began to make a comeback in the 1990s, but was sidelined by a 1998 stroke.

“My right side was totally paralyzed,” Evans says. “But you know what? Now I can play tennis. The doctors thought I’d never be able to walk again without a cane. But I can.”

And so he’s back in the game, planning new films to produce, working on another book – and, yes, he frankly admits, basking in the adulation he’s receiving for the film based on his autobiography.

Evans received a standing ovation after the Sundance premiere of The Kid Stays the Picture. During a post-screening Q&A session, when someone asked if there’s anything he would change about his life, he replied: “The second half.” But, then again, maybe not. Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby he brought to the screen during his Paramount era, Evans believes there really are second acts in American lives.

“We're in a world of three-act plays now, that's the difference,” Evans says. “You know, at one point, I wanted Warren Beatty to star in The Great Gatsby, and he said, ‘No, I’ll direct it — and you'll play Jay Gatsby.’ Maybe he was right.

“My life has been easier to read or to see than to live. And there’s been a lot of hurt. It’s a cliché, but it's true: You live by the sword, you die by the sword. I lived well by the sword. And I’ve died hard by the sword. Much of it I deserved, though some of it I didn’t. And much of the good I deserved, but some of it I didn’t. But I know one thing: I did it the only way I know how.

“That's why I wanted to do the movie Popeye years ago. That’s what I’ve stood for: I am what I am, that's all that I am.”

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